Sleeping Under the Stars

A cowboy!  Chaps, spurs, everything. His giant cowboy hat hid his cowboy face as he steered his cows in my direction. They were moving surprisingly fast for cows.  As they raced closer, I realized the cows were HUGE, or I was very small– either way, they towered over me as I lay on the ground, perfectly still.  

Then I opened my eyes to the darkness of a moonless night. I was, in fact, laying on the ground, and it took me a moment to remember why:  I was on a trip with my Animosa teammates, and we were camped for the night on public land in southern Idaho.  

I’ve always loved camping, but this was different.  It was my first time sleeping outdoors without a tent.  

It was liberating– just me, my sleeping bag, and the universe overhead.  

The stars were bright enough to faintly illuminate the fields and valleys around me.  I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of grasshoppers munching on tall grasses and tumbleweeds stirring in occasional rustles of wind. 

The next thing I knew, I opened my eyes to the most spectacular sunrise I’ve ever seen.  I sat up, still wrapped in my sleeping bag.  Everything glowed- the hills, the grass, and I’m certain my face.  Had I been in a tent, I would have missed it all.


Several months later I found myself on another Team Animosa trip, this time in Joshua Tree National Park.  

It was long past sunset, but the giant full moon and a million stars illuminated the Mojave Desert.  Cartoonish Joshua Trees and towering rocks cast long shadows over cacti and desert shrubs.  

I sat with Kate, Animosa’s founder, atop a giant rock, enjoying Malbec, crackers, and manchego in the moonlight.  The moon reflected off the rocky landscape like it does off snow.

And then, a cowboy appeared.  A real cowboy, with a real cowboy hat, on a real horse with another in tow, emerged from between the boulders below us.  

Kate and I exchanged an incredulous glance and peered down, watching the cowboy ride through the silence.  The moonlight gleamed in the horses’ eyes, and for a moment I thought it was a lucid dream, but Kate remembers it too.  It was surreal, but very much real.

Sleeping outside in Joshua Tree will forever be one of my best adventures. I don’t know what time it was when we climbed into our sleeping bags. Time really didn’t exist there, so I don’t know how long I laid awake gazing up at the sparkling rock spires and starry sky.  Feeling the gentle desert breeze on my cheeks.  Listening to the pitter-patter of tiny kangaroo rats racing over the sand. Not thinking about scorpions.

Some hours later I opened my eyes, awakened by the sound of hoots echoing off the rocks.  The desert owls were announcing the sunrise, and already the sand and rocks were bathed in ambient pink light.  

From my mummy bag I could see the brightening spot on the horizon where the sun would soon emerge.  But I couldn’t stay in my sleeping bag.  I scrambled up the rocks and emerged on top of the world.

I felt like a kid.  I felt free.  Carefree.  Open.  Somehow sleeping on the ground, with nothing between me and the outside, was profoundly liberating.

I sat there on the rock and watched the sun rise. Below me Kate looked like an orange desert grub worm in her sleeping bag.

I wouldn’t have had this experience if Kate hadn’t encouraged me to try it. And having made it through the night without being attacked by scorpions, I felt like I could do anything. I felt strong, grounded, and happy.


From Joshua Tree we slowly made our way north, which meant more nights of tossing my sleeping pad on the ground and soaking up the nighttime splendor.

Our next night was in the San Jacinto mountains above Palm Desert- much cooler and cloudy, but periodically the still-full moon penetrated the clouds to reveal the high mountain desert.  Piñon pines and cholla cacti flickered in the campfire light.  As we fell asleep, I heard coyote howls in the distance.  And that night, I rolled off my sleeping pad in the night and ended up in the shrubs.

At dawn I awoke not to an amazing sunrise, but to an amazing storm cloud looming overhead. It started to sprinkle as we deliberated:  did we have time to make coffee before the rain really hit?  Yes.  Barely.

The scene was quite different as we headed north. In the Los Padres National Forest, Central California, surrounded by Canyon Oak trees:  the tree branches formed a silhouetted matrix overhead, but the leaves were thin and sparse, leaving the sky visible between them.

I nestled into my sleeping bag and looked straight up at the stars glimmering between the leaves and twigs.  A breeze swept down the valley, making the tall oaks dance.  And without my glasses, it was like gazing up at a sparkling disco party.

I woke up much later to find the moon centered directly overhead, surrounded by a vignette of tiny oak leaves.  As I stared at that giant moon, I thought again about how different it would be if I were in a tent.  

At best, the tent screen would have filtered the view, and most of it would have been blocked entirely.  And would I have been able to smell that creek, babbling with fresh rainwater from the mountain above? It probably would have been overpowered by the slightly mildewy smell of my old tent.  

As I slowly drifted off to sleep again, tiny acorns fell rhythmically to the ground. They sounded oddly like the clip-clop of horse hooves in the distance.